Pre-conference play will be interesting

People who were expecting LSU to roll through its 18-game pre-Southeastern Conference schedule with a mere bump or two will be disappointed.

This veteran Tigers team, which opens the 2017 season against Air Force at The Box on Friday (7 p.m. Central/SEC Digital Network), will be without designated hitter Bryce Jordan. He is out for the entire season after suffering a serious knee injury.

Kramer Robertson

It appears LSU avoided another serious injury involving rightfielder Greg Deichmann. Last Friday, Deichmann was hit in the face by a pitch. He needed surgery for fractures in his cheek bone. However, it looks like Deichmann will be available for this weekend’s games against Air Force and Army.

There is one more player dealing with an ailment. Backup catcher Jordan Romero, who has been bothered by a shoulder injury, will not be able to serve as a designated hitter during the opening weekend due to a sprained ankle.

So, injuries are providing a few anxious moments for coach Paul Mainieri as he readies his squad for the long 56-game regular-season schedule. If Deichmann is ready, there will be six returning starters in the lineup for the season-opening contests.

The Tigers will have veterans Alex Lange and Jared Poche to start on the mound in the first two games of the season. But, freshmen Eric Walker and Zack Hess will make starts in non-conference games against Air Force on Sunday and Hofstra on Wednesday, respectively.

The pre-SEC schedule is not easy with five games against ranked teams – three home games against Maryland at The Box and games against TCU and Texas Tech at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston. Moreover, LSU will play true road games against UNO and McNeese State.

Mainieri has a delicate balancing act for the next month – answer questions about his personnel while still winning games. Non-conference losses can come back to haunt a team when national seeds for the NCAA tournament are being handed out in late May.

The Tigers are in a unique situation as they have eight experienced juniors and seniors – as everyday players or as top pitchers. Mainieri has a good idea which players will be in the lineup every day. However, the absence of Bryce Jordan is causing Mainieri to experiment with the batting order.

Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn must settle on a No. 3 starter and determine roles in the bullpen. But, the candidates for those spots are plentiful. There are some talented newcomers to challenge veteran holdovers for time on the mound.

The college baseball season is a long one. What occurs in the first month of the season will usually have little bearing on what will take place during the postseason in June.

But, LSU baseball fans need to observe the approach and not necessarily the performance of those eight returning upperclassmen over these first 18 games.

Shortstop Kramer Robertson and second baseman Cole Freeman must duplicate their 2016 seasons. Robertson, who batted .324, had only one less runs produced a year ago than Alex Bregman had in 2015. Freeman, who had a team-best .329 batting average, must play All-SEC caliber defense again.

Deichmann must be that powerful middle-of-the-order hitter as he was down the stretch in 2016. Deichmann will certainly have to deal with the mental aspects of getting hit by a pitch in the face.

Michael Papierski needs to deliver some timely hits as well as being one of the top defensive catchers in the country. It would help the Tigers’ cause if Papierski hit in the .270s. Leftfielder Beau Jordan must return to the form he exhibited at the plate in the first half of the 2016 season.

Then, there are the three leaders of the pitching staff – starters Lange and Poche and closer Hunter Newman. Both Lange and Poche were good, but far from outstanding last season. If LSU is going to contend for a national title, those two hurlers need to provide a quality start each time out.

Dunn has set up his bullpen in the fashion of a major-league staff. Dunn needs three set-up guys to bridge the game from starter to closer. But, it is a necessity that Newman is a sure thing when he gets the ball with a lead in the ninth inning.

The 30 SEC games are obviously the most important ones during the regular season. If LSU wins the SEC title, it will be a definite national seed in the NCAA tournament. It will be interesting to evaluate the work of the veteran players in the month leading up to the league-opening series against Georgia.